Archive for ‘Popular Culture’

October 25, 2016

Zombie Fight or Flight launches on Kickstarter!

PignPotato Games has just launched its Kickstarter campaign for Zombie Fight or Flight! This collaborative card game was developed at the CoRe Jolts Game Jam in June 2016.  PignPotato Games is made up of 7 Game Jam participants who decided to see if they could successfully launch the game created that weekend.

The group started by hiring Rachel Petrovicz to create amazing art for the cards, and have continued to test and improve the game over the past few months.  In the process, they’ve developed both ideas for classroom uses (for grades 3-12) and trainers’ notes for using the cards in conflict resolution and negotiation training.  In fact, the prototype decks will get a tryout on Halloween when they are used in the Continuing Legal Education Society’s course on Negotiation Skills for the Zombie Apocalypse.

cards-in-hand

The Kickstarter campaign will run until November 26th, but some rewards are limited in number, so check the campaign out soon if you’re interested in custom artwork, custom ceramics, or conflict resolution training and game jams!

Zombie Fight or Flight and Drunken Zombie Fight or Flight decks are available to ship worldwide, but if you’re in Vancouver, want to save shipping costs and can pick up on December 17th, make sure you choose the “without shipping option”.

January 17, 2016

Active listening skills for phone sex operators and other lessons from the theatre

“The cross pollination of disciplines is fundamental to truly revolutionary advances in our culture.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

This year our youngest daughter turned 19 and we are now parents of three adults.  They are all at university so it’s not as though all of our responsibilities have ended, but …  We are definitely free to make plans on our own in a way that hasn’t been possible since the eldest two (twins) were born.  It is possible that this freedom has gone to my head – just a bit.  As a former theatre student who attended plays very frequently in my pre-parent days, I upped our theatre-going dramatically this year in response to the excitement of that freedom!  We moved from season subscriptions at two theatres, to a year in which we saw close to an average of one play a week (an average which is skewed by seeing 30 plays in 10 days at the Vancouver Fringe Festival.)

Now theatre, by its very nature, tends to focus on conflict.  Critics since Aristotle have explored the ways in which plays develop around central conflicts; while playwrighting courses teach that nothing kills the entertainment value of a show quicker than characters agreeing about everything!  As a consequence, plays tend to lend themselves to examination through a conflict resolution lens: What is the source of the conflict? How do the characters negotiate? What might a conflict resolution professional take away from the interaction?

While I tend to view most popular culture through a conflict resolution lens – if only to identify great examples for teaching purposes – I realized this year that I have underutilized plays as options for engaged discussions with fellow conflict resolution professionals.  The realization hit me after I watched Tonya Jone Miller’s amazing performance in The Story of O’s at the Vancouver Fringe.  I’ll write more about the play below, but the play and her performance reminded me vividly of how interconnected some of the skills she was displaying are with conflict resolution practice.  As a result, I was inspired to come up with a list of the top plays for conflict resolution professionals that I saw in 2015 – with the hope that others will join me in discussions of even more such plays in 2016.  (To that end, I’ll be organizing a CoRe Speaker event in September specifically focused around plays seen at the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Details to be announced on the CoRe site once the Fringe schedule is announced.)

Jolts for Mediators

My top four plays for conflict resolution practitioners in 2015 were:

1. Tonya Jone Miller’s A Story of O’s

a_story_of_osI didn’t go to A Story of O’s with an expectation of insight into my own profession.  The program description in the Fringe guide told me little beyond the fact that the play was a monologue about sex phone work based on the performer’s real life experiences. It sounded like something that could be entertaining or dreadful; but it was only 60 minutes long so worth the risk given it fit the rest of my schedule for the night.

Instead of my best case – entertaining – the show was sensational! And much of what impressed me was directly related to Tonya’s demonstration of incredible skills in active listening, spontaneity, trust building (with the audience and with her phone sex clients) and empathy without judgment.  The majority of the show was scripted, but one could readily extrapolate, from the snippets of calls that Tonya performed, just how attentively she was listening to each client and continuously checking her understanding of their interests.  That she was so explicitly concerned with finding empathy without judgment with each caller resonated with me: as mediators we all occasionally struggle with a tendency to judge a party’s approach to negotiation, their behaviour leading up to the conflict or within the conflict, or even their objectives for resolution. Tonya demonstrated an empathy that many conflict resolution professionals must work to achieve.

The show also contained a truly brilliant snippet of improvised monologue based upon audience suggestions for a “weird” desire.  In that segment, of course, we witnessed Tonya’s amazing skills in spontaneity, listening and awareness of audience cues, “accepting offers” (in the sense of “yes, and-ing…” ideas and contributions from others in order to build on their ideas rather than rebut them), and storytelling.  I’d hire Tonya as a mediator based purely on that performance!

If you have an opportunity to see the show – or anything else she creates – you should! And then let me know: I really need someone else with a conflict resolution lens to discuss the show with!

2. A Simple Space

This production by the Australian acrobatics ensemble Gravity and Other Myths inspired me to think about conflict resolution themes in entirely different ways.  The troupe of 7 highly skilled acrobats mix games in which they compete against each other to “win” such challenges as most standing back flips in a row with incredibly challenging “team competitions” in which they carry out incredible acrobatic feats that rely on perfect collaboration amongst all members of the troupe to keep everyone safe and in which they all “win” if they pull it off (even if one or another member might have a “starring role” from time to time).

As a whole, the show is a brilliant display of teamwork at its best and most functional, and ways in which competition can be enervating and push teams working together to higher levels of achievement.  Check out the video below for a flavour of their performance – then imagine yourself seated right on stage as they perform only a few feet away!

3. Cock by Mike Bartlett

Cock_video-01-500x155cockfightCock won an Outstanding Achievement Award in the 2010 Oliviers, so there will certainly be opportunities to see it performed by different companies in different cities.  On a simple, structural level, the play showcases interpersonal and relational conflicts in a rapidly changing series of short scenes.  John is torn between a return to a long term relationship with his boyfriend, M, and a new relationship with a woman, W. Staged without props in a circle intended to evoke a cock fighting ring, the play shows moves from one confrontation between characters to another: first John and M engage in a series of difficult conversations, then John and W circle each other in similar discontent.  Eventually we see the combination of John, M and W, only to have John’s father, F, added to the mix.  The production staged by Rumble Theatre in Vancouver maintained the sense of short engagements in a longer (cock) fight as the characters pick at each other in familiar patterns of verbal conflict.  Each scene offers examples of all the ways that speech and body language can exacerbate conflict.  John’s personal conflict drives the play, but the interactions of the characters in snippets of negative discussions offers the conflict resolution professional a complete study in conflict behaviours.

4. Nirbhaya

nirbhaya_1Nirbhaya is a powerful interweaving of women’s stories of sexual violence and abuse. The stories are woven around the central tale of Nirbhaya who died following a horrific gang-rape on a Delhi bus in 2012. (The name Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless”, was used to identify Jhoti Singh Pandey before her name was known.)  The stories invite the audience to acknowledge the existence of sexual oppression and abuse, and the consequences – to individuals, families, and societies – of the resilience of such cultures. The topic of culture in conflict studies is an extraordinarily broad one: plays like Nirbhaya help us to engage in discussions of such difficult and complex topic through the lens of individual narratives, opening up discussions and increasing understanding.

Honourable mentions?

If you are looking for plays that lend themselves to a conflict resolution discussion, then I’d also recommend:

  • The New Conformity – a narrative about social and peer pressures to conform performed entirely through juggling.
  • Small Town Hoser Spic – Pedro Chamale’s one-man contemplation on growing up Hispanic in a small town in northern BC.
  • 52 Pick-Up – This story of a couple’s first meeting through dissolution of their relationship is told in the order in which 52 playing cards are picked up by the actors. Never the same, every performance offers new insights and connections.

And What to Watch for this Year?

I’ve made a few theatre-going choices for early 2016 with the intention of seeking out conflict resolution themes.  If you’re interested in joining me in the endeavour, consider checking out:

October 27, 2013

Oh no, please don’t!

“The worst thing that you could do right now is beatbox.”

– The Doubleclicks

stalemateTwo weeks ago I had the pleasure of co-faciliating a workshop on Advanced Impasse-Breaking Tools with long time colleague and collaborator Carrie Gallant.  It was a great chance to reflect on the applicability of ideas across varied contexts since we had a fabulous assortment of participants ranging from collaborative divorce practitioners through corporate tax specialists with lots of variation in between.  What was particularly inspiring to me during the session was hearing the participants readily extrapolate ideas that emerged in one practice area to their own contexts.  What seemed to facilitate these connections was the process of making explicit the intention behind any process choice.  For example, rather than thinking to myself that I should caucus because the parties seem to be reaching a sticking point around making an offer (and that’s what has worked in the same situation with other parties), I can be more responsive to the specific people in front of me if I instead think “Hmmm…  There’s a pattern of resisting that I could interrupt in a variety of ways, including caucusing.  Some of those might have additional benefits, so which one seems best suited to the here and now?”

One topic that generated more discussion during the workshop than Carrie and I had expected was the notion of negative brainstorming – brainstorming what doesn’t work in order to create criteria for what might.  Given the interest from the group in various ways of harnessing negative energy and reactive interpersonal behaviours in seeking resolutions, I decided to post about some ways in which “what not to do?” can be a helpful question.

Jolts for Mediation

1. “What won’t work?” or Capitalizing on the “Listening to Rebut” pattern

Debate2When parties are locked into a pattern of listening to rebut (a useful phrase that John R. Van Winkle uses in Mediation: a path back for the lost lawyer, p. 83), they are not likely to be able to brainstorm ideas jointly.  Rather than reserving judgment, each idea offered will meet with critique and discussion of why it doesn’t work, or silence if the rebuttal impulse is squelched.  The pattern of rebuttal is a strong one in our adversarial culture, and can frustrate attempts at joint problem-solving unless one chooses to make intentional use of the pattern.  Essentially, the mediator, recognizing the pattern of rebuttal, changes the question from “what would resolve the issues?” to “what won’t work to resolve the issues?”  The latter question often generates a fairly energetic list of negatives (e.g. It can’t work if we have to see each other!).  That list, however, can be a great tool for generating criteria necessary for resolution.  (e.g. Any solution will need to minimize or eliminate direct contact.)  Once parties engage with the process of developing criteria from this list of negatives, they are on their way to a solution-oriented discussion, and the mediator can assist the parties to pull criteria and/or interests directly from the negative list.  Working with a white board or other visual aid to generate and translate the list has the added advantage of being a second form of pattern interrupt – it moves parties’ visual focus to the mediator and the lists, disrupting the physical pattern as well as the verbal one.

It’s interesting to note that for participants who work in areas that might be described as dealmaking rather than dispute resolution, this technique struck a different chord.  As one tax practitioner explained it, in his world it is common to describe the perceived barriers to a course of action in order to test whether they are true barriers or simply untested assumptions.  By engaging in a process of examining whether or not the assumed roadblock is a true impediment to the deal, the parties may both discover a more creative approach than if they simply accepted the barrier as absolute.  For that reason, articulating barriers can be a useful exercise where parties are in agreement about what they want to achieve, but are assuming that they can’t get there – or can only get there in one way that isn’t ideal for some reason.

2. Life Goals Analysis

While preparing this post, I was also planning a future workshop on reality checking and hence re-reading (inter alia) John Wade’s 2001 paper on Systematic Risk Analysis.  With musings on negative brainstorming in mind, I read Professor Wade’s discussion of “Life Goals Analysis” a bit differently than I have in the past and realized that the approach he espouses is an interesting variation on the idea of shifting a list of barriers into a list of positive criteria.  In suitable situations, Professor Wade suggests creating a short “life goals” list with a client as a means of emphasizing positive gains rather than dwelling on a negative list of risks.  Where a typical risk analysis approach to client counselling or business decision-making might list the risks if conflict continues, the life goals analysis focuses on the aspects of resolution that might help a client meet broader life goals.  The chart below is clipped from page 21 of Professor Wade’s paper and shows a few examples of how risk analysis might be converted to life goals.

Wade life goals

Professor Wade flags the possible psychological benefit of reframing to positives, noting:

“This switch may find some justification from several psychological studies which suggest that most (not all) people are “risk averse”.  Therefore, any list should express positively what has already been gained by the current offer, not how far the current offer is short of a ‘target’ or perceived ‘entitlement'”.

3. The “I Hate Beatboxing” Jolt

The quotation that heads this blog post is drawn from a song by one of my favourite bands, The Doubleclicks.  As you’ll see if you watch the video embedded below, the song captures the sense of “what not to do” in social situations with awkward pauses, and escalates the question by framing it as “the worst thing that you could do right now” as opposed to just what doesn’t work.  In The Doubleclicks world, “the worst thing you could do right now is beatbox,” but in a mediation, there are definitely worse options.  What happens if you ask the parties – perhaps in caucus – “what’s the worst thing we could do right now?” If you start the list with beatboxing or jumping up and down and squawking like a seagull, then you might at least generate a list that helps break the mood.  You’ll likely also get some ideas that focus on real process choices and that can be used to draw out reasons why the current process is not working as well as it could.  (E.g. Even “the worst thing we could do right now is keep going the way we’re going!” allows for the possibility of a discussion of what needs to change in the process.)

Personally, I can see playing the song itself in a facilitation or classroom setting where things are going awry for some reason and asking “what’s the worst thing we could do right now?”  Just as generating negative criteria can be a method of developing ideas for how to resolve a content problem, generating ideas of worst process choices (or behaviours) can form the basis for jointly exploring new process choices.

Carrie and I have another workshop coming up on November 19th on MBTI Types and Conflict Resolution. The session will be particularly focused on the application of the MBTI Step II tool and will be of interest to anyone interested in type and conflict.  You can see a sample of my thoughts about the Step I tool and conflict on this site.  The session supports the CoRe Conflict Resolution Society and offers 3.5 hours of CPD credits.  For more information, check out our website.  

 

May 17, 2013

Board Games for Mediators

“Don’t be a d**k.” – Wil Wheaton

Who gets pneumonia suddenly just as the weather turns warm and a period of relative calm appears in both work and family schedules?  Apparently, that’s me. I’ve just spent two weeks laid up with pneumonia!  Still not recovered, but sitting up and taking the opportunity to share my (possibly) fever-induced insights…  For much of the past weeks, I have been too weary for much reading, and restricted in television watching by a promise not to get ahead of my husband on anything I’d really like to watch.  Netflix was misfiring on our device and wearing down my patience, so Youtube it has been – and a bizarre marathon of TableTop with Wil Wheaton.  For those readers unfamiliar with TableTop, the show is remarkably simple in concept: Wil Wheaton (now primarily an internet celebrity, but for older folks often better known as young Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation)  plays tabletop games with his friends (usually other internet and television actors, producers, writers, etc.) and introduces viewers to a wide range of cool games in the process.

No doubt occurring to me as a rationalization for my odd compulsion to watch every TableTop episode in order, I started thinking early on about the potential value of the various tabletop games played on the show for conflict resolution purposes.  And lo and behold, there really are quite a few that lend themselves to such consideration!  I’m going to concentrate here on two games that illustrate two different categories of possible interest to mediators:  Dixit – a game about understanding indirect communication (through a wide range of skills); and Pandemic – one of many collaborative games that require teamwork and joint problem solving to have any chance of winning.  There are many other examples of each of these categories of games, of course, but these two happen to have been featured on TableTop which allows me to link to a more detailed explanation – and they’re really fun!

Jolts for Mediators (and possibly for Mediation?)

dixit-odyssey-8n7jgji1. Dixit

Dixit is an award-winning European card game that I’d never heard of before my TableTop marathon.  It’s remarkably simple in concept. Each player starts with 6 cards with artistic images on them.  Players take turns being the Storyteller.  The player who is the Storyteller chooses a card from her hand and lays it down on the table face down, giving a short descriptive phrase that might allow others to identify the card.  Everyone else also lays down a card  – one that they think is most likely to fool other players into thinking it was the Storyteller’s card.  The cards are shuffled, turned face up, and each player places their bet as to which card was the Storyteller’s. The Storyteller scores points only if at least one player, but not all, chooses her card.  Others score by choosing the right card and by having votes on the card they played.

dixit_cardsIIHere’s a simple example:  Suppose the Storyteller played the second card in this set (the books) and gave the description “From above”.  Players might well choose photo 1, 3 or 5 instead – depending on how they understand the description.  So in essence, success in the game relies on the following skills:

  • Reading any clues from the Storyteller’s tone and body language
  • Interpreting the clue through the lens of the Storyteller (which means really listening to the clues a person gives from one round to the next and developing a sense of how they interpret visual images)
  • Fooling other players by selecting cards that you believe they will see as matching the description (which means, again, understanding the lenses that others bring to the game and speaking to their worldviews rather than automatically and unconsciously choosing according to your own)
  • As Storyteller, communicating to some, but not all of the people in the room (by utilizing clues that one or two people will recognize, but that you think at least one other will not).

It seems to me that each of these skills are closely connected with strong mediation skills, particularly the need to recognize and speak to different worldviews and backgrounds, and to do so consciously and with awareness.  One could certainly play the game without doing so, and I am sure that many players do approach it fairly unstrategically, but what a great warm-up/practice of conscious skill development when one is deliberately focused on that aspect of the game!

I can imagine utilizing the game as a pattern interrupt in a conflict resolution skills training workshop.  Allowing the participants to debrief the skills utilized and to practice them consciously could provide a great reinforcement of discussions of varied lenses, cultural differences, etc. while changing the rhythm should students reach a point of low energy or discouragement with the speed of their skill development.

The game is so simple that I suspect that in the right setting one could play a single hand (or a couple of hands) in an actual mediation to introduce a discussion of communication challenges.  Again, a pattern interrupt aimed at stimulating reflection on and discussion of the process as opposed to the content of the mediation.  Most tools that effectively shift parties to a discussion of process can be effective in breaking impasses based on positional posturing, and I suspect that Dixit could too.

If you’d like to watch the TableTop episode on Dixit, here it is.  Watch Casey McKinnon’s play, in particular, for a great example of explicit strategizing about clues that will communicate with one but not all players.

Pandemic2. Pandemic

This one is a bit “on the nose” for my current bout of pneumonia, but my daughters have kindly indulged me by letting me play multiple rounds with the intention of eradicating pneumonia (and three other diseases) from existence!

Pandemic is one of a wide range of collaborative board games.  Players are trying to wipe out 4 diseases that spread quickly throughout the world.  Each player has a different character who has different abilities.  Only by working together, and strategizing carefully do players have the slightest chance of winning the game and curing all 4 diseases.  There are three ways to lose the game, and only one to win.  Very difficult to win even at the simplest level of play with only 4 epidemic cards in the deck, and almost impossible at the highest levels!  But oh so much fun!

I love Pandemic because I love the way it brings people together to focus on problem-solving.  It very quickly feels like that moment in a mediation when everyone transitions from positional gamesmanship to solution-oriented communication. Gaming scholar, Carly A. Korucek, captures much of my reaction to Pandemic in her description of playing the game for the first time and her thinking about the culturally celebrated model of competition in games of all sorts.  Here’s a fairly lengthy quote from her blog, Casual Scholarship, that provides a gaming scholar’s insight into collaborative gaming:

I was impressed by Pandemic. Sure, it was fun, but I was more impressed by the effect it had on those of us playing. We weren’t just sort of working together, we were painstakingly thinking through the ramifications of every possible move for every player. At some points, we plotted out series of actions involving 3 or 4 players’ turns. We were sucked in. When we — all of us — lost, there was swearing and shouts of disappointment.

The point I want to suggest here is that playing collaborative games can be a very different experience than playing, well, most other games, which pit players against each other, either individually or in groups. In the realm of boardgames, games like checkers, Clue, Sorry, and other household names encourage players to compete directly with each other. This model is so established that when I ask people if they can think of any collaborative games, they often draw a blank.  …

In writing about the history of competitive video gaming, I have been thinking a lot about  models of play that aren’t based on competition among players, not because they are prevalent, but specifically because they are obscure. The fetishization of individualized competition in much of gaming shouldn’t be seen as either natural or neutral. Our investment and interest in the successes of individual gamers is part of a system that broadly values individual achievements and may, even in the case of corporate- or team-based achievements, give credit for success to individual actors rather than the collective involved.

Professor Korucek makes an important point when she notes that individual competition is neither natural nor neutral.  Competition is a value embedded so deeply in our culture that we don’t even question it.  We celebrate the most competitive individuals and strive to instil competitive drive in our youth, even while suggesting that we should all cooperate.  To quote a favourite song from Todd Snider, Ballad of the Kingsmen:

…First grade where they teach the kid pride
They tell him he’ll need to thrive,
In a world where only the strong will survive,
So he’s taught the art of more
To compare to and to keep score Monday thru Friday while
He stares at the floor til’ Sunday they make him go to
School once more only this time they make him wear a suit and a tie
And listen to some guy who claims to know Where people go
When they die tell him that only the meek are gonna inherit the earth…

In this context of unexamined competitive values, collaborative games like Pandemic are important in that they are every bit as fun as any competitive game you can name, and they reward wholly different values than games based on individual victory – the values that underlie all collaborative decision-making processes.  Of course, cooperative games were an education buzzword when I was a teenager, and they have been part of many children’s programs at least since then.  But, as Professor Korucek comments regarding video gaming, competition has remained the norm in much the same way that competitive bargaining remains the expectation when people sit down to negotiate.  The challenges that so many in the justice field have written about in shifting dispute resolution culture (and perhaps especially legal dispute resolution culture) to create space for collaborative approaches are the same challenges that any game designer faces in creating a collaborative game – we have unconsciously adopted competitive values from virtually all aspects of our culture and assume that competition is a universal norm, making collaboration risky.  This normalizing of competition has led us to simply not think of games as being collaborative unless they are didactic and offered in school to teach young children about cooperation.   Well, happily that is changing and games like Pandemic may just be a little wedge in the dominant culture of competition.

Pandemicg01t04How to introduce Pandemic to mediators, and maybe even sneak it into a team-building setting or other collaborative process?  Try playing Pandemic at a mediators’ retreat, or (and I would love to be invited!) at a monthly mediators’ gaming evening.  And introduce it to your families and friends to spread the word about collaborative gaming.  And yes, perhaps in the right setting, you could even use the game in a long term facilitation.  I’m thinking here of longer term work with families who need to learn (or re-learn) how to work together and might need to include pre-teens and teens in that process.  Playing a game might be a “homework” assignment to help the family prepare for a joint problem solving session.  Or similarly imagine the game used as part of work with family members planning around a loved one’s illness.  I found it remarkably therapeutic to name the red disease ‘pneumonia’ and set our to eradicate it as quickly as possible; others might find similar moments of unexpected lightness in bringing caregivers and family members together to defeat cancer or dementia.  (I think of dementia, in particular, as I look forward to Don Desonier’s upcoming CoRe Talk about working with families planning around dementia, but any illness might be equally appropriate). Likewise, workplace retreats and workshops aimed at building teamwork and increasing collaborative problem solving could be an appropriate situation for a game of Pandemic.  In many such events, games of one form or another are already normalized as part of team building.  I know I’ve attended a number of firm/faculty/workplace social events that involved competitive games. Doesn’t building an event around a game in which the whole team wins or loses more closely match the real workplace ideal of competing together than pitting half the group against the other half?

Here’s the TableTop episode on Pandemic.

And to circle back ever so briefly to the potentially obscure quote that led off this discussion, one of Wil Wheaton’s further contributions to the betterment of the world (beyond providing inspiration for collaborative gaming and mediation skills training) is the naming of July 29th (his birthday) as Don’t Be a D**k Day.  Simple message, but definitely one that will resonate with many mediators.  Personally, I plan to schedule mediations on July 29th whenever I can simply so I can declare at the outset that it’s Don’t Be a D**k Day and that the main ground rule for collaborative problem solving is just that simple.

April 26, 2011

Taking the “Cake” Challenge in Combinational Creativity

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.” – Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss)

After more than two months absent from this blog – and from virtually everything else that requires a reasonable degree of concentration  –  I am finally feeling clear enough of the symptoms of concussion to develop and post some new ideas.  Definitely time to “wake up the brain cells”!  And so I’ve chosen to give myself a nonsense challenge in combinational creativity: take the word “cake” and use it a launching point for five “jolts” that could be used in a mediation.  Before I get there, however, a little background on what I mean by combinational creativity…

Compotier avec fruits, violon et verre (Picasso)

Compotier avec fruits, violon et verre (Picasso)

Dr. Margaret A. Boden, OBE, is a Research Professor of Cognitive Sciences who has published many fascinating papers on topics in artificial intelligence and creativity.  She identifies three ways in which humans generate creative ideas – ideas that are “new, surprising, and valuable”.  Most relevant to this blog entry, we create through combinational creativity – the generation of unfamiliar (and interesting) combinations of familiar ideas.  (Boden also studies exploratory and transformative creativity, both of which I will look at in future postings.)  Combinational creativity surprises us by connecting things and ideas that are not normally linked.  Collages, Bizarro cartoons, and metaphors are all examples of combinational creativity.  Each combines things in ways that are unexpected, creating thought-provoking, humourous, and surprising results.

Creativity trainers encourage the use of combinational creativity to stimulate new ideas for businesses or new perspectives for problem solving.  For example, the exercise that is sometimes known as Random Input, asks participants to use combinational creativity to break through roadblocks in their thinking.  (And yes, Random Input is one of the 5 Jolts!  It’s the process I’m using to write the blog, after all.)  In this technique, you select a random word or image as a starting point for brainstorming.  Open the dictionary, newspaper or novel at a random page, and choose a word that is unrelated to your topic.  Concrete nouns work especially well.  It happens that I started out my Random Input exercise with an image that caught my eye – a cake!  You can see why it screamed creativity to me in the second jolt below.

“Cake” Jolts for Mediation and Mediators

1. Random Input

I’ve described the basic concept of Random Input above, and I’m sure that you can imagine lots of ways that it can be used in a mediation, even if it is more commonly used as a brainstorming tool for teams.  Consider, in particular, how you might use it as a “deal mediator” – someone who is acting as a mediator in the development of a business transaction or the development of an estate plan, etc.  Random Input can be fun, stimulating and a great team building exercise for groups that are not trying to resolve a problem, but instead trying to develop the best possible deal.

A few resources for Random Input:

  • MindTools – A useful educational website with lots of brainstorming ideas.
  • Roger von Oech’s Innovative Whack Pack – Small Claims Mediators have seen my Pack at an Impasse Breaking workshop in 2009.  Von Oech has created a deck of cards with different creativity strategies on each.  Instead of choosing a word, choose a strategy and try to apply it.  And he now has a Creative Whack Pack iPhone app.

  • Tarot cards – Books, magazines, newspapers …  Anything can be used to find a random word, of course.  But images are fun too, and can lead to even wider interpretations.  Tarot cards are a handy size to carry, and the 22 cards of the Major Arcana can be especially evocative.
  • And, it’s easy to create your own Random Input toolkit.  A bag of miscellaneous objects, a collection of photos from magazines, or a simple word list – all will work to inject a new and random element into the group’s brainstorming work.

2. Battlestar Galactica Cakes

This was the image that caught my eye and made me think – CAKE! – as the trigger word for my contemplations.  It’s a glorious example of combinational creativity, of course – while the combination of baking and popular culture is growing these days, it is still surprising when one stumbles upon such a fabulous example.  This one comes from Kandy Cakes in Cambridge, Ontario, but I spotted it on the fascinating blog Between the Pages: Where pop culture and food meet.

I’m naturally thinking about what kind of cake I’d bake for impasse breaking purposes?  Anything this intricate would be a jolt, but I am decidedly not so skilled with the icing application as this, so would have to be more creative about type of cake instead.  Here’s my top 5 list:

a) Flourless chocolate cake and b) wacky cake:  Both of these cakes offer the opportunity to discuss creativity.  Flourless chocolate cake works as a metaphor for problem-solving – you really don’t have to include all the same ingredients in every cake, and there may be excellent reasons to leave some out (the guest with wheat allergy might stand in for the party with any number of interests that run counter to a “standard” way of resolving a problem).  Wacky cake, aside from having a great name, is a different variation on the non-standard ingredients idea – in this case, the cake is made with ingredients one doesn’t expect in a cake: no eggs, but there is vinegar!

c) Devil’s food cake – clearly the food for the devil’s advocate.

d) Marble cake – All of the flavours manage to work together, even if they never really blend.

e) Upside-down cake – Why don’t we look at this in an entirely different way?  (Maybe an accompaniment to a session of reverse brainstorming?)

3. You Cut, I Choose

Wikipedia calls “You cut, I choose” a “two-party proportional envy-free allocation protocol” which is quite representative of the considerable scholarly literature on the concept of fair division of a limited resource that starts with a discussion of the classic sibling rivalry over the last piece of cake.  (Between the innumerable articles on cake cutting and the ubiquitous DR references to expanding the pie, it may be time to question the eating habits of DR scholars.)  Here are just a few resources on the eternal question, all of which are specifically focussed on the topic of impasse breaking.

I haven’t read Robertson and Webb’s book Cake Cutting Algorithms, but the publisher writes that “[t]his book gathers into one readable and inclusive source a comprehensive discussion of the state of the art in cake-cutting problems for both the novice and the professional. It offers a complete treatment of all cake-cutting algorithms under all the considered definitions of “fair” and presents them in a coherent, reader-friendly manner. Robertson and Webb have brought this elegant problem to life for both the bright high school student and the professional researcher.”  Given how complicated the math is in some of the texts I’ve looked at, I may just check out a book that can be read by bright high school students!

I have read Brams’ and Taylor’s Fair Division: From cake-cutting to dispute resolution and would recommend it only to readers who are comfortable with math.  That said, the basic premise of most of the chapters is simply described at the beginning and is itself a reasonable talking point for discussing fair division options.  The book itself might be a good “prop” in specific business negotiations, much the way von Oeck’s list of creativity strategies works by asking parties to think about using a specific technique.  Thinking about why or why not the technique might work refocuses parties on criteria for settlement rather than specific points of dispute.

Both of these books are available through CoRe’s aStore.

The Cake Cutting Problem on mathematics-in-europe.eu – a short and sweet overview of the fair division problem.

4. Cake – the Band

I’m planning to write a post on music in dispute resolution at a later date, so I’m just going to touch on the most obvious points about Cake:

  • The band combines multiple musical genres to create its unique sound (ska, rockabilly, jazz, country, rap…) and so could be viewed as the musical equivalent of marble cake as a metaphor for conflict resolution.
  • Any musical interlude has the potential to act as a pattern interrupt, of course, but the music video for The Distance is itself a wonderful example of combinational creativity!  And it even has a business theme going on.

5. Make Mine Chocolate

This one is simple chemistry: caffeine and serotonin are the most commonly identified sources of chocolate’s mood altering chemistry.  Caffeine, of course, increases mental activity (and wakefulness in a long drawn-out discussion); and serotonin is described as having a similar effect to Prozac – calming and relaxing.  Make your afternoon snack chocolate cake in one form or another  for a relaxed, but wakeful discussion.


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